Owner of the Key West Inn in Piedmont, Gambill gratefully watches her hotel fill to capacity each year as bicyclers show up for the Cheaha Challenge -– just a part of the economic benefit the city receives from the annual event.
“Yes, we look forward to it, it helps,” Gambill said of the Cheaha Challenge, which took place today.
Gambill said many of the cyclists make reservations months in advance to ensure they have a room for the yearly riding event.
“It’s one of our biggest times of the year,” she said. “And they are such nice people.”
Hundreds of cyclists from across the country gathered in Piedmont for the 20th Cheaha Challenge, a 102-mile hill-laden bicycle ride through the county. For Jim Underwood of Pascagoula, Miss., today was his first time to ride in the event.
“I’ve been riding bikes for a few years, but I just hadn’t had a chance to do this one,” Underwood said as he prepared his bike for the journey.
Underwood said he starting riding bikes when he was a kid growing up in Huntsville and has since ridden in several events similar to the Cheaha Challenge across the country. Underwood said he still wanted to ride the Cheaha Challenge, though, because of its reputation.
“It’s got a pretty good name in the cycling community,” he said.
Though he didn’t get a hotel room in Piedmont for the event, Underwood suspected he would open his wallet there before the weekend was out.
“I probably will spend some when I get back,” Underwood said.
Today was not just the first time Colleen Ambardekar and her husband had participated in the Cheaha Challenge; it was the first time they had ever ridden in a cycling event. Ambardekar, of Cochran, Ga, said she and her husband. had previously attended several Cheaha Challenges to cheer on friends who were participating.
“Since this is the 20th Cheaha Challenge we decided to try it … we hope we get to the first rest station,” Ambardekar said with a laugh.
Ambardekar said she usually stays with her friends when she comes to Piedmont for the event, but spends money in other ways.
“We spend money … bought gas often here and bought food … our friends bought some food for us at the Solid Rock Café,” she said.
Jennifer Gillette, owner of the Solid Rock Café in downtown Piedmont, said she does not usually see much of a boost in customers from the Cheaha Challenge because her restaurant is closed on Sundays. However, she plans to remedy that next year.
“We had talked about being open for the families, but we were not ready to do it this year, but maybe next year,” Gillette said.
Gillette said she suspected her café would be busy for the event due to all the family members of the cyclers who come to cheer and show their support.
“The families are down here for it and then don’t have much to do,” she said.
Piedmont Mayor Brian Young said the economic benefit from the Cheaha Challenge does not come just during the day of the event.
“I really feel this event is more a long-term benefit then short-term,” Young said. “We get some extra motel business and some restaurant business, but what it really does is promotes the trail.”
The 33-mile-long Chief Ladiga Trail runs through Piedmont.
The Cheaha Challenge prompts people to come back, Young said.
And usually, cyclists have extra money to spend.
Mike Poe, an organizer of the Cheaha Challenge, said a survey of participants in the event shows that the average cyclist makes about $120,000 a year. He said some riders can spend up to $10,000 on their bicycles.
“The Cheaha Challenge does have a great economic impact,” Poe said. “And it has people leaving with such a great opinion of the community. You can’t put a price on that.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.